by Pastor Doug Kings
This week an independent report was released on sexual abuse by clergy, of both adults and children, in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. What has drawn the most attention is the report’s detailing how denomination officials suppressed news of such abuse, protected accused clergy, and ignored and often demonized persons bring forth abuse claims.
Reports of abuse have roiled the SBC for years, with proposals for investigation and reform routinely opposed by denomination leaders. The crisis came to a climax when last year’s national convention voted overwhelmingly to authorize an independent investigation and required church leaders’ cooperation, including turning over all relevant documents and correspondence.
The report is sending shock waves through the SBC. The extent of the abuse and the role of many of the denomination’s most prominent leaders and pastors is beyond many members’ worst fears. The New York Times reported that for “the denomination’s president, Ed Litton, … what he read in the report was ‘far worse’ than anything he had anticipated.”
In a scathing article in the prominent evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, theologian and former SBC official, Russell Moore, calls the report “the Southern Baptist apocalypse.” Moore had been one of the few SBC denominational leaders to seek an investigation of the abuse reports and to defend accusers. Official hostility towards Moore led him to resign his position and eventually leave the denomination.
Moore says he shook with rage as he read the report, his fingers barely able to flip its pages on his computer.
The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves….
Moore is a Baptist to his core and a theological conservative. Yet he is also a committed and compassionate disciple of Christ. The pain of these events has pierced his soul.
I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse…. I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist [administration] building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could. That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.
As the “Me Too” movement, congressional investigations of the military, the sex scandals of the Catholic church, and countless other stories have revealed, sexual abuse thrives in environments dominated by male authorities, such as corporate executives, politicians, commanding officers, and clergy. While seemingly theological opposites, the Roman Catholic church and the SBC are both male-led exclusivist organizations.
Yet even aware of this reality, the reaction of most Christians to such scandals in the church is not far from Moore’s. “How could this possibly happen?” people ask. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Jesus and the gospel understand their incompatibility with such abuse and with the protection of those committing such abuse. What’s gone wrong?
In truth, sex abuse scandals are one part of a much larger pattern of misbehavior within and by the church, stretching back to its earliest centuries. In a meditation this week, Richard Rohr says:
[W]e must be frank: in their behavior and impact upon the world, Christians are not much different than other people…. [R]eligion has probably never had such a bad name. Christianity is now seen as “irrelevant” by some, “toxic” by many, and often as a large part of the problem rather than any kind of solution. Some of us are almost embarrassed to say we are Christian because of the negative images that word conjures in others’ minds. Young people especially are turned off by how judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, and ineffective Christian culture seems to be. Most Christians have not been taught how to plug into the “mind of Christ”; thus, they often reflect the common mind of power, greed, and war instead.
Since accepting its position as state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, church leaders have adopted the secular values of power and domination. Today clergy preparation emphasizes learning theology, Bible and administrative skills far more than spiritual formation. Congregations are more concerned about their pastor’s ability to manage their parish than provide spiritual guidance.
Nonetheless, starting with the desert elders who fled the corruption of the empire’s cities, there has always been a mystic minority seeking to know God and follow Jesus’ model of servanthood and compassion. Often, they have been persecuted by the church but also have been an essential force for the church’s renewal. Rohr continues:
Throughout the history of Christianity, it would seem Jesus’ teaching has had little impact, except among people who surrendered to great love and great suffering. Could this be the real core of the Gospel? Such people experience God rather than merely have disconnected ideas about God. We need to rely on the mind of mystics now to offer any kind of alternative … consciousness. We need practice-based religion that teaches us how to connect with the Infinite in ways that actually change us from our finite perspectives.
Rohr closes with the story of Francis of Assisi, who began his ministry rebuilding a crumbling church building. Francis was responding to a call from God, who said his prophetic action symbolized the need for the whole church to be rebuilt. With behavior that so often scandalizes and alienates, and a message that strikes many as tedious and irrelevant, it’s hard not to see the church in the same condition today.
Blessings in your life and ministry.